Planning an Argument

The Audience

Who are they? What do you know about them and what do you need to find out? What do they already know about the issue, topic or point? Of what do you need to inform them? These are all serious considerations.

How Much Does Your Audience Know?

How much does your audience know? Good question. It depends on who they are and the relationship they have to the material out of which your argument is going to be built. It also depends on whether they are professionals or novices. As a student, you can safely assume that your instructor, a professional who knows more than you, is your primary audience.

You may also find that your instructor has assigned another audience-one that you must create in your own mind-ranging anywhere from the specific to the general. If so, you will have to find out how much latitude you are permitted in creating that audience and the amount of credit you are permitted to extend regarding what and how much they know.

Depending on the goal of the assignment, you will likely be expected to prove 1) that you understand the in-class, course material, and 2) that you have the ability to move beyond and build an argument incorporating outside material.

Unless otherwise indicated, neither your instructor nor your created audience will need detailed explanations of information revealed in the course material, however, both will require a careful explanation of anything brought to your argument through outside materials.

When in doubt of your audience, query your instructor. Some will make a designation (e.g., imagine writing an architectural design critique for the Sunday Supplement to the Denver Post), others will not. And finally, analyze the actual assignment for clues, as in the examples below.

Can You Emotionally Position the Audience?

Another good question: It's a difficult concept involving the projection of feelings and thoughts into an argument that you want the audience to hold and share. Although you have some control over how they react by the way in which you write, you may not go so far as to break disciplinary norms.

Certain academic fields consider emotionally positioning the audience to be poor writing; others consider it very strong and persuasive. Here are a few ways in which to do it when it the circumstances are acceptable:

  1. In your introduction, frame the issue in such a way that the readers are incited to be emotionally involved, sympathetic to the plight or issue you're discussing.
  2. Demonstrate the consequences of the issue in such a way that your readers are convinced of its significance for the profession, for society, etc.
  3. Discuss your personal investment in the issue so that your readers see a real person behind the writing.

What Kind of Evidence Will Your Audience Accept?

This is a question of authority and credibility and the answer hinges directly on the identity of your audience. Who are they? What do they expect? The power of your argument will be severely undercut if you misdiagnose and provide personal experience as evidence to an audience expecting findings from a carefully controlled research experiment. Here are a few general guidelines to follow:

  1. Unless your assignment specifically asks for all original research, previously published work is always acceptable.
  2. Unless asked to write specifically for a public audience, popular journals and magazines are rarely acceptable.
  3. Unless you acknowledge political or disciplinary bias, etc., extremely one-sided sources are unacceptable. Once bias is pointed out, your reasons for inclusion should be obvious.

Why Should Your Audience Listen to You?

What's in it for them? This goes to the heart of the matter: Your goal. What purpose does your argument serve? More often than not, your assignment will make this clear: a call to action, for instance, or validating a solution.

  1. In English you might argue for the audience to accept a specific textual interpretation as only one among many.
  2. In psychology, you might argue for an audience to conclude that a specific solution is better than all other solutions.
  3. In philosophy, you might simply argue the need for an audience to further explore or discuss a disciplinary question.
  4. In political science, you might argue for the audience to take a particular action on a policy issue.

If your assignment is not clear, turn to other published works to see what goals and purposes previous arguments in your discipline have historically served and how the authors went about constructing them.

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